Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Is Historical Fiction More Truthful Than Historical Fact?


Trying to discover historical facts is a very valid way to study history. For example, asking questions such as 'what did medieval peasants eat?', 'how many people lived in Doncaster in the 1300s?', 'at what speed did plague spread?' are all very useful to historians. It is counter factual history that is often more controversial, and seen as more 'fictional'. For example, 'what would have happened if Constantine hadn't converted Roman Empire to Christianity?' and other questions are often the subject of much dispute.

I recently read an article by Lisa Jardine where she argued that fiction has the power to fill in the imaginative gaps left by history. She spent some time researching the lives of a group of scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War Two. Although there are several impeccably researched non-fiction works on the subject and a number of biographies, none of these really conveyed the emotions and convictions that drove their work, and Jardine said she struggled to connect with the personal principles of the scientists who collaborated with such energy to produce the period's ultimate weapon of mass destruction. This led her to turn from fact to fiction in order to understand the motivation of those who joined the race to produce the bomb whose use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki appalled the world.

This same line is followed by many historians; if historical fact cannot fill the gaps in our knowledge, perhaps historians less constrained by documented evidence might do so. Macaulay once remarked that 'the novel is to history what the painted landscape is to a map.' And this is often the case: historical fiction can often breathe life into the lungs of the departed, open one's eyes to new possibilities and explain subtle mysteries.

Jardine says she read Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen which recreates a famous moment in the history of the race to develop the atomic bomb - a meeting in 1941, in Denmark, between German physicist Werner Heisenberg - best known for his "uncertainty principle", that the more accurately you know the position of a particle, the less accurately you know its velocity, and vice versa - and his former doctoral supervisor and mentor, the Danish quantum theorist Niels Bohr. We know very little about the meeting: just that the two men met and that it was cut short by an angry Bohr. Heisenberg was about to become head of the Nazi atomic bomb project, Bohr was Jewish, an enemy, and under surveillance in an occupied territory. He eventually fled via Sweden and Britain to the United States in 1943, where he played a significant role in the Manhattan Project.

In Frayn's version the two men relive their encounter, struggling unsuccessfully to reach any sort of agreement as to what took place, which would help decide the moral accountability of both men's key role in unleashing nuclear weapons on the world seems somehow to depend on that conversation. As in life, no agreement is reached (after Bohr's death a letter to Heisenberg was found among his papers, vigorously denying Heisenberg's published account of what took place). However Michael Frayn has dramatic licence to invent exchanges and even physical details which focus attention on the issues at stake here. He creates dialogue imaginatively that draws the audience into the debate, prompting it to make its own attempt at assessing the motives and beliefs of the two scientists. Frayn says "The great challenge is to get inside people's heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions. The only way into the protagonists' heads is through the imagination."

Jardine recounts how in 1999 she took her mother, then in her early 80s, to see Frayn's Copenhage. She had met the Bohrs, and they had moved in similar circles after the war. During the interval she explained to Jardine which parts of the dialogue had sounded implausible to her, and where there had been small inaccuracies. As the curtain came down on the final act, and the lights came up, Jardine turned to her mother to ask her how she now felt about the play. She was sitting, hands folded in her lap, tears coursing down her face. Only later did she tell Jardine it was like being there all over again.

Jardine has concluded that often fiction is needed to sharpen our senses, to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past and that the creative imagination of fiction writers can reconnect us with the historical feelings, as well as the facts.

However I do not agree with Jardine's suggestion that fiction is more 'truthful' than fact as fiction is based upon the author's sensibilities and what the target audience is looking for. Jardine argues that some works of historical fiction are "successful attempts at a kind of bridging between fact and fiction that captures the feelings behind the ideas", however this is unconvincing. Heisenberg and Bohr may have thought and felt as Frayn portrays them - or they may not. Fiction involving real people can mislead people into confusing reality with an author's imagination, even if fiction can be a good way of exploring issues surrounding real people and events and is often a great vehicle to learn about major world events. Yet fiction takes great liberties with the truth. For example Frayn falsely represented Werner Heisenberg, making him morally ambiguous for the premise of the play to be possible. Therefore, I do not think that a work of fiction, which never claims to accurately reproduce reality, can give you more insight than the actual thoughts and papers and letters of those who lived through that time and discussed it.

source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29060077

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

When Does 'Modern History' Start?

A few weeks ago a New York Times article announced the possible “first peaceful transition of power in Iraq’s modern history” after Nouri al-Maliki’s announced that he would be stepping down as prime minister and transferring power to Haider al-Abadi, also of the al-Dawa party.

That made me think about when history starts being modern. Iraq’s recent monarchies were full of peaceful transfers of power. From the 1920s until 1958, when the monarchy of King Faisal II was overthrown, it was common for Iraq’s parliament to transfer power without incident. There were elections, a parliament, a relatively open press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, opposition parties and opposition figures. Whilst power wasn’t entirely in the hands of parliament at the time because there was a monarchy and the British still had influence, does that period not count as peaceful transfers in the modern history of Iraq?

The phrase “in modern history” isn’t one that journalists only apply to Iraq, of course. However there is no universally agreed upon periodicisation for history. The definition of modern history depends heavily on the country or region in discussion. For example Iran’s 'early modern' era started in about 1500, whilst ‘modern European history’ beings in the 19th century-20th century (and up to the present).

I was recently having a discussion with a lawyer who told me that he thought 'history' begins when all the main protagonists are dead (making WWI 'history' but not the Cold War). In my opinion this is not a useful definition as it does not make any distinction between 'history' and 'modern history'. I also don't think that modern history is simply politics; I believe they are two very different ways of looking at past events.

In my opinion, when a historian declares something is the 'best' or most 'violent' (for example) thing in modern history, it's important to think about how far 'modern history' goes back in that particular country/area in order to see if the claim is valid, as modern history is a flexible term that means different things in different circumstances.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Does It Help to Know History?

The point of studying history is not because it gives students with history degrees a practical advantage on non-history students, but because it enables us to enter into a long existing, ongoing conversation. It isn’t productive in a tangible sense; it’s productive in a human sense. The action, whether rewarded or not, really is its own reward.

Every writer, of every political bias, has a neat historical analogy, or mini-lesson, with which to preface an argument for why we ought to bomb one organisation or side with another against a state we were bombing before. But the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out. The advantage of having a historical sense is not that it will lead you to instructions on what to do or not to do, but that it will teach you that no such answers exist. What history generally “teaches” is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they’re making it.

Roger Cohen, for example, wrote about all the mistakes that he thought the United States has made in the Middle East over the past decade, with the implicit notion that there are two histories: one recent, in which everything that the United States has done has been ill-timed and disastrous; and then some other, superior, alternate history, in which imperial Western powers intervened in the region, wisely picking the right sides and thoughtful leaders, promoting militants without aiding fanaticism, and generally aiding the cause of peace and prosperity. As the Libyan intervention demonstrates, the best will in the world combined with the best candidates can't broken polities quickly. What “history” shows is that the same forces that led to the Mahdi’s rebellion in Sudan more than a century ago—rage at the presence of a colonial master; a mad turn towards an imaginary past as a means to equal the score—keep coming back and remain just as resistant to management, close up or at a distance, as they did before. ISIS is a horrible group doing horrible things, and there are many factors behind its rise. But they came to be a threat and a power less because of all we didn’t do than because of certain things we did do—foremost among them that massive, forward intervention, the Iraq War. (The historical question to which ISIS is the answer is: What could possibly be worse than Saddam Hussein?)

Another, domestic example of historical blindness is seen in Lyndon B. Johnson who was a ruthless political operator who passed crucial bills such as the Civil Rights Act. He also engineered pushed the Vietnam War through Congress, a moral and strategic catastrophe that ripped the United States apart and, inflicted terror on the Vietnamese. It also led American soldiers to commit atrocious war crimes, almost all left unpunished. Johnson did many good things, but to use him as a positive counterexample of leadership to Barack Obama or anyone else is marginally insane.

Johnson’s tragedy was critically tied to the cult of action, of being tough and not just sitting there and watching. But not doing things too disastrously is not some minimal achievement; it is a maximal achievement, rarely managed. Studying history doesn’t argue for nothing-ism, but it makes a very good case for minimalism: for doing the least violent thing possible that might help prevent more violence from happening.

The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been—and, thus, than they really are—or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling—even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse. (The history of medicine is that no matter how many interventions are badly made, the experts who intervene make more: the sixteenth-century doctors who bled and cupped their patients and watched them die just bled and cupped others more.) What history actually shows is that nothing works out as planned, and that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war—sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it. History is past, and singular, and the same year never comes round twice.

Those of us who obsess, for instance, particularly in this centennial year, on the tragedy of August, 1914—on how an optimistic and largely prosperous civilization could commit suicide—don’t believe that the trouble then was that nobody read history. The trouble was that they were reading the wrong history, a make-believe history of grand designs and chess-master-like wisdom. History, well read, is simply humility well told, in many manners. And a few sessions of humility can often prevent a series of humiliations. What should, say, the advisers to Lord Grey, the British foreign secretary, have told him a century ago? Surely something like: Let’s not lose our heads; the Germans are a growing power who can be accommodated without losing anything essential to our well-being and, perhaps, shaping their direction; Serbian nationalism is an incident, not a cause de guerre; the French are understandably determined to take back Alsace-Lorraine, but this is not terribly important to us—nor to them either, really, if they could be made to see that. And the Ottoman Empire is far from the worst arrangement of things that can be imagined in that part of the world. We will not lose our credibility by failing to sacrifice a generation of our young men. Our credibility lies, exactly, in their continued happy existence.

Many measly compromises would have had to be made by the British; many challenges postponed; many opportunities for aggressive, forward action shirked—and the catastrophe, which set the stage and shaped the characters for the next war, would have been avoided. That is historical wisdom, the only wisdom history supplies. The most tempting lesson that history gives is to not tempt it. Those who simply repeat history are condemned to leave the rest of us to read all about that repetition in the news every morning

source: http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/help-know-history?utm_source=tny&utm_campaign=generalsocial&utm_medium=twitter&mbid=social_twitter

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Easter Island


One of the most fascinating things about Easter Island, for me, is how the obsessive building of stone statues actually led to a society that was so unsustainable (they focused a disproportionate amount of their resources on them) that the native inhabitants of Easter Island were almost entirely wiped out.

Easter Island was, for most of its history, one of the most isolated, territories on earth. Its inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, have endured famines, epidemics of disease and cannibalism, civil war, slave raids and have seen their population crash on more than one occasion.

The Austronesian Polynesians who first settled the island are likely to have arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the west, and arrived there as recently as 1200 CE. These settlers brought bananas, taro, sugarcane, and paper mulberry, as well as chickens and Polynesian rats. It is suggested that the reason settlers sought an isolated island was because of high levels of Ciguatera fish poisoning in their then current surrounding area.

Some contact between the the culture of Easter Islanders and South Americans is shown by the dispersion of the sweet potato: this staple of the pre-contact Polynesian diet is of South American origin, and there is no evidence that its seed could spread by floating across the ocean. Either Polynesians traveled to South America and back, or South American balsa rafts drifted to Polynesia, possibly unable to make a return trip because of their less developed navigational skills and more fragile boats. Jacob Roggeveen's expedition of 1722 was the first-recorded European contact with the island. He reported "remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height" and described the islanders, saying they were "of all shades of colour, yellow, white and brown" and they distended their ear lobes so greatly with large disks that when they took them out they could "hitch the rim of the lobe over the top of the ear". Roggeveen also noted how some of the islanders were "generally large in stature". Islanders' tallness was also witnessed by the Spanish who visited the island in 1770, measuring heights of 196 and 199 cm.

According to legends recorded by the missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a very clear class system, with an ariki, king, wielding absolute god-like power ever since Hotu Matua had arrived on the island. The most visible element in the culture was production of massive moai that were part of the ancestral worship. With a strictly unified appearance, moai were erected along most of the coastline, indicating a homogeneous culture and centralized governance. In addition to the royal family, the island's habitation consisted of priests, soldiers and commoners. The last king, along with his family, died as a slave in the 1860s in the Peruvian mines. Long before that, the king had become a mere symbolic figure, remaining respected and untouchable, but having only nominal authority.

Several foreign vessels approached Easter Island during the early 19th and 18th centuries, but the islanders had become openly hostile towards any attempt to land, and very little new information emerged before the 1860s. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck Easter Island. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing or killing around 1500 men and women, about half of the island's population. International protests erupted and the slaves were finally freed in autumn, 1863, but by then most of them had already died of tuberculosis, smallpox and dysentery. Finally, a dozen islanders managed to return from the horrors of Peru, but brought with them smallpox and started an epidemic, which reduced the island's population to the point where some of the dead were not even buried. Contributing to the chaos were violent clan wars with the remaining people fighting over the newly available lands of the deceased, bringing further famine and death among the dwindling population.

Since being given Chilean citizenship in 1966, the Rapa Nui have re-embraced their ancient culture, or what could be reconstructed of it, but since 97% of the population were killed in a few decades, much of the culture and heritage has been lost.

Mataveri International Airport is the island's only airport. In the 1980s, its runway was lengthened by the U.S. space program to 3,318m so that it could serve as an emergency landing site for the space shuttle. This enabled regular wide body jet services and a consequent increase of tourism on the island, coupled with migration of people from mainland Chile which threatens to alter the Polynesian identity of the island. Land disputes have created political tensions since the 1980s, with part of the native Rapa Nui opposed to private property and in favor of traditional communal property.

On 30 July 2007, a constitutional reform gave Easter Island the status of special territories of Chile. Pending the enactment of a special charter, the island will continue to be governed as a province of the Valparaíso Region.

Friday, 10 October 2014

British Imperialism

One of my readers sent me this picture today, in response to the picture I posted earlier this week. Britain has invaded over 90% the world's countries, quite an impressive feat for a small island off mainland Europe! The map below shows every country that Britain has ever invaded.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Independence from the UK

I really like this picture that I found online last week, showing every country that has ever gained independence from the UK, and when.
Embedded image permalink

Friday, 3 October 2014

Is History a Science?

A highly debated question over the past few decades has been whether or not the study of history can be counted as a science or not. A lot of the books I have read recently have discussed this idea, and I have decided to collect a few of the notes I have made and ideas I have thought of whilst reading together in one (rather jumbled) blog post.

Trevelyan has said history is a mixture of the scientific (research), the imaginative or speculative (interpretation) and the literary (presentation). Historians' facts will always be incomplete; no one is ever going to unravel scientifically the metal processes of twenty million Frenchmen during the French Revolution of 1789. But interpretations of this event cannot be arrived at by a mere process of induction.

Elton thought history was neither an art or a science. 'History', he declared proudly, 'is a study different from any other and governed by rules peculiar to itself'. Elton argued that historical knowledge is cumulative; he said that through the steady accumulation of empirical knowledge, professional historians were advancing 'ever nearer to the fortress of truth', making history somewhat scientific. He also distinguished between a historian and a poet or novelist by arguing that historians have to be trained; i.e. they have to learn technical details of the documents they use. However Zeldin argued that the history one writes is an expression of their individuality, and that one cannot be trained or taught how to write history.

Carr said there is no clear separation between the researcher and the object of research. However he did say that historians should not judge the past in moral terms; their purpose was rather to understand how the past had contributed to human progress. It is pointless, for example, to condemn slavery in the ancient world as immoral; the point is to understand how it came about, how it functioned, and why it declined, opening the way to another form of social organisation. There is also, surely, a moral element in research in the natural sciences; moral concerns may drive scientific research, or they may emerge from it.

Carr also argued that whilst no two historical events are identical, no two atoms are either, no two stars, no two living organisms, yet this does not stop scientists from framing their laws. Similarly, he said 'the very use of language commits the historian, like the scientist, to generalisation'. He pointed out that history is not merely confined to the establishment of particular, isolated facts: it teaches lessons, such as the constant reference made by delegates at the Versailles Conference in 1919 to the Vienna Congress of 1815. Carr also said history can still be a science even though it cannot predict the future. The law of gravity, he observed, could not predict that a particular apple would fall as a particular time in a particular place. Scientific laws operated only under certain specific conditions, and history seems to be able to predict events too in some ways, such as the necessary conditions and time and place where a revolution might take place - thus history was just like any other science in its generation of laws and predictive capacities.

One reason to suppose that history is not a science is that historians' conclusions cannot be experimentally replicated. But a number of important aspects of sciences are based, like history, on observation rather than experimentation, such as, for example, astronomy. Such observation may not be directly visual; it may be indirect, for instance, as when the existence of Pluto was postulated through the observation of irregularities in the orbital path of the next-outermost planet in the solar system. Likewise we infer the existence of some objects in outer space from radio waves, but we cannot recreate them in experiments, like we can in a chemical reaction, Yet nobody has claimed that astronomy is not a science.

Froude claimed that history had to confine itself to a presentation of facts, and not be used to 'spell out' theories of a 'scientific nature'. Indeed, in every case where historians have tried to prove generally applicable laws of history, they have been easily refuted by critics who have demonstrated instances where they do not apply. For example in A Study of History Toynbee tried to draw a series of general laws as to why civilisations rose, developed and collapsed. Yet this has later been criticised as some historians have suggested Toynbee simply selected the evidence he wanted. Buckle suggested that history could be scientifically reduced to a series of mathematical formulae.

While many people, especially politicians, try to learn lessons from history, history itself shows that in retrospect very few of these lessons have been the right ones. Time and time again, history has proved a very bad predictor of future events. This is because history never repeats itself; nothing in human society, the main concern of the historian, ever happens twice under exactly the same conditions or in exactly the same way. And when people try to use history they often do so not in order to accommodate themselves to the inevitable, but in order to avoid it. For example, British politicians in the post-war era based much of their conduct of foreign policy on the belief that the 'appeasement' of dictators, such as was carried out by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in his relations to Hitler in 1938-39, could only lead to disaster. In practice however, this very belief only too often led to disaster itself, most notoriously in 1956, when the British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, obsessed with the desire to avoid the 'appeasement' of dictators which he himself had criticised in the later 1930s, launched an ill-advised and unsuccessful military strike against the Egyptian government under Colonel Nasser when it nationalised the Anglo-French owned Suez Canal.

Nor does history enable one to predict revolutions, however they are defined. Historians notoriously failed to predict, for instance, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91. And although Carr argued that the historian's role was to use an understanding of the past in order to gain control of the present, very few historians have shared this concept of using the past as the basis for concrete predictions. Whilst a chemist knows, in advance, the result of mixing two chemicals together in a lab, a historian has no such advance knowledge.

History, however, can produce generalisations. It can identify, or posit with a high degree of plausibility, patterns, trends and structures in the human past. In these respects it can legitimately be regarded as scientific. But history cannot create laws with predictive power. An understanding of the past might help in the present as it can broaden our knowledge of human nature, provide us with inspiration or warning and suggest plausible (although fallible) arguments about the likely possibilities of things happening under certain conditions. None of this, however, comes anywhere near the immutable predictive certainty of a scientific laws. Marx, Engels, Toynbee and Buckle all claimed to have discovered laws in history; all were wrong.

Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argued that there is a pattern in history where wealthy states created empires, but eventually overstretched their resources and decline. The book used the failure of the Habsburg Empire to achieve European domination in the 16th and 17th centuries as a prediction that the United States would be unable to sustain its global hegemony far into the 21st century. Written in 1987, the book also argued that the Soviet Union was not close to collapse. Within a few years the Soviet Union had indeed collapsed and the world hegemony of the United States appeared more assured than ever. Even in the economic boom of the 1990s the US showed few signs of suffering from the 'imperial overstretch' which Kennedy had prophised. As soon as Kennedy tried to turn his generalisations into laws, he ran into trouble. It is always a mistake for a historian to try to predict the future.

So, history is a science in the weak sense of the word, but it is also an art. Marc Bloch claimed it is also a craft because historians learn on the job how to handle their materials and wield the tools of their trade. History is a varied and protean discipline, and historians approach what they do in different ways That means history can be both scientific, linguistic, literary and a craft.